Via the Linux Journal: Learn about some of the risks when choosing an alternative to a Raspberry Pi for your project.
I have a lot of low-cost single-board computers (SBCs) at my house. And, I’ve written a number of articles for Linux Journal that discuss how I put those computers to use. Even more recently, I wrote a “Pi-ventory” article where I tried to count up just how many of these machines I had in my home.
Although the majority of the SBCs I use are some form of Raspberry Pi, I also sometimes use Pi alternatives—SBCs that mimic the Raspberry Pi while also offering expanded features—whether that’s gigabit Ethernet, faster CPUs, SATA ports, USB3 support or any number of other improvements. These boards often even mimic the Raspberry Pi by having “Pi” in their names, so you have Orange Pi and Banana Pi among others. Although Pi alternatives allow you to solve some problems better than a Raspberry Pi, and in many cases they provide hardware with better specifications for the same price, they aren’t without their drawbacks.
The initial Raspberry Pi was a runaway success, and all of the subsequent models have sold incredibly well. There are only a few variants on the Raspberry Pi platform, and later hardware upgrades have done a good job at maintaining backward-compatibility where possible (in particular with overall board dimensions and placement of ports). There also have been only a few “official” Raspberry Pi peripherals through the years (the camera being the best example). When you have this many of a particular hardware device out in the world, and the primary vendor is mostly focused on the hardware itself, you have a strong market for add-ons and peripherals from third parties.
The secondary Raspberry Pi market is full of cases, peripherals and add-on hardware like USB WiFi dongles that promise to be compatible out of the box with earlier models that didn’t include WiFi. Adafruit is a good example of an electronics vendor who has jumped into the Raspberry Pi secondary market with a lot of different hobbyist kits that feature the Raspberry Pi as the core computing and electronics platform. That company and others also have created custom add-on shields intended to stack on top of the Raspberry Pi and add additional features including a number of different screen options, sensors and even cellular support.
The secondary market for Pi alternatives is pretty small. You might find cases or other basic peripherals, but because there just aren’t as many of those devices out in the world, it’s much riskier for a company to go to the trouble of making specific add-ons just for those devices.
One of the major things Raspberry Pi has going for it is its community. Because of its popularity and how many of these devices were sold compared to those of competitors, it has an enormous community of users that spread across all kinds of disciplines—from electrical engineers to gamers to sysadmins to artists.
Many of the Pi alternatives do have communities in their own right with forums and chat rooms that you can turn to for support. There are also guides online for some of the more common use cases for a particular board (for instance, boards that feature SATA and gigabit Ethernet being used as a file server). Some of the common software projects (like media PC projects) often also include Pi alternatives in their documentation alongside Raspberry Pi if a particular board becomes popular for that use. So in many cases, the community is there, but if you start to stray from the common uses for your particular board, you are more likely to be on your own, or at least you’ll have to adapt a Raspberry Pi guide to your SBC.
If you are debating between a Raspberry Pi and another board for your project, I hope this article has been helpful. In general, my advice is just to do your research before you buy any particular board—even a Raspberry Pi. Without proper research, you may end up with a board that won’t work well for your project or that works only with an ancient OS. Defaulting to a Raspberry Pi is also not a silver bullet. I’ve chosen Pi alternatives for many of my projects specifically because a Raspberry Pi would have been underpowered (or didn’t have proper hardware support) for my needs.
Adafruit is hoping to provide additional software support to non-Raspberry Pi SBCs via Blinka. Blinka is a Python 3 layer that provides access to GPIO pins and other hardware across different boards. See this guide for additional information. The nVidia Jetson is the latest board to receive such support.